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(12/27/2010) The news of the death of Brenda Unseld in Switzerland on her 71st birthday on December 20, 2010, while not a surprise, was no less upsetting to those of us who had grown to know and love this remarkable woman. In the midst of planning one of her regular homecomings to Indonesia set for December 2010, Brenda was diagnosed with acute leukemia in October.
A determined analyst to the end, Brenda undoubtedly delved into the medical implications of that diagnosis, rapidly assessing the limited options before her. In an exchange of emails written only last month, she said: "Acute leukemia at my age promises nothing. A choice of chemotherapy would have been in isolation and with such strong chemicals that I probably would not have survived the intervention." Instead, she chose home treatment followed by a final option of hospice care that would permit friends and family to assist "as the needs arise."
She had high praise for Roebi, her husband of 34 years – 12 of which spent in their beloved Indonesia, who remained a valiant companion until the end. While "Roebi did more laundry in a week than he had done in his entire life," Brenda used the remaining time to say farewell to friends and family, some of whom traveled to Switzerland from the U.S.A..
Already gravely ill and on palliative care, Brenda managed to write to me in November of her concern for the victims of Indonesia's volcanic eruptions in Java. Till the end and in keeping with her generous character, Brenda remained a "giver" and a "sharer."
I first met Brenda in the 1980s when she helped pioneer a program of expedition lectures on the Spice Island Cruise Ships that sailed to Indonesia's exotic islands. Possessed with an inquisitive and searching intellect, she painstakingly prepared entertaining and informative lectures on subjects ranging from volcanoes, traditional textiles, rice agriculture, megaliths to traditional boat building - all of which she enthusiastically shared with fellow passengers privileged to join her on countless journeys through the Indonesian archipelago.
My job at that time was to manage the cruise company and find passengers for those enchanted journeys. Brenda's considerable skills as a lecturer made that job easier.
During this period, Brenda developed a special love and interest for the "ikat" textiles made by the woman of Eastern Indonesia. Her knowledge of their means of production and the nuance of design were truly impressive; often able to identify both the island and even the village of origin for a specific piece of weaving on sight.
I can't help but imagine somewhere "There" Brenda's tired shoulders are now wrapped in an exquisite piece of home-spun "ikat" woven by the woman of Nusa Tenggara who are now her eternal, angelic neighbors.
Brenda helped popularize the textiles of those islands to a world-wide audience and, along the way, made both our lives and the lives of those villagers all the richer richer.
Characteristically stoic and decisive to the end, Brenda wrote with remarkable courage during her final weeks of life. That she could avoid the imagined indignities of hospital or nursing home cate was seen by her as important and positive "victories."
Betraying her intimate connection with Indonesia maintained to the end, Brenda wrote to me in late November about the spate of volcanic eruptions then underway: "Even though it is the most natural thing for an active volcano to erupt there are devastating results. It is also the most natural thing to get old and die. I left no rock unturned and have no regrets. This makes my time easier."
Brenda's varied and interesting life journey ended on her 71st birthday on December 20, 2010, in Basel, Switzerland with her beloved Robie by her side. Born to tobacco farmers in Virginia (U.S.A.). Humble beginnings, which included stints of picking tobacco, were remedied by her family's love of learning. Younger brothers Walter and Donald became, respectively, a respected banker and journalist. Meanwhile, Brenda embarked on her life-long vocation of sharing knowledge by first working as a high school biology teacher.
Later, in 1976, she met Dr. Robert Unseld, a Swiss chemist working with Ciba-Geigy in South Carolina. They married in 1979 and moved to Basel, Switzerland for an assignment at Ciba-Geigy's headquarters. In Switzerland, a three-year stint as headmistress at the Basel International School preceded the shift to Indonesia where Roebi joined his company's management team in Jakarta.
Obviously smitten with her new home, Brenda volunteered at Jakarta museums, travelled throughout Asia and found her very special niche sailing and lecturing on countless cruises through Indonesia with Spice Island Cruises.
Roebi and Brenda returned to Basel in 1995 where they continued to pursue their love of travel, fishing, and undertaking regular trips to Bali and Indonesia.
While Brenda died "at home" in Basel on December 20th, she is mourned in her other "home" among the people and islands of Eastern Indonesia.
December 20, 1939 – December 20, 2010
+ + + +
Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you 'grave for me:
Here he lies where he long'd to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Those wishing to express condolences to Robert Unseld and Brenda's family can email unseld[at]balcab.ch